Narrow bridges

How an orphan builds bridges in Premchand’s short story “Idgah”

‘Idgah’ is an iconic story by Munshi Premchand. Its protagonist Hamid – that poor little being – braves prejudice and poverty to buy a pair of tongs on Eid for his frail grandmother who ends up burning her fingers while making rotis. Hamid is a creature of the culture of poverty. He only has three paise and he is well aware of the value of money. The feeling of deprivation sharpens his survival instincts. He weighs his options carefully, does not give in to fleeting temptations, does not bet on fleeting and fragile things, and invests in a pair of flip-flops. What Hamid does corresponds to Lebanese-American essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of “anti-fragility,” a property of systems in which one increases the ability to thrive in the face of adversity.

Hamid, the five-year-old protagonist of Premchand’s story “Idgah” braves prejudice and poverty to buy her grandmother a pair of pliers on Eid Shutterstock

His argumentative and obstinate spirit still stems from the same culture of poverty. Faced with bare life circumstances, his arguments constitute his resource and his stubbornness, his will to survive against all odds. So Mahmud and Mohsin and Noore and Sammi may have used a merry-go-round or delicious sweets or clay toys, but they are too fake to have any power to argue.

His arguments may lack logical coherence, but that’s the whole point of arguments. Whoever argues with dogged stubbornness and acceptable plausibility wins the argument. That’s the beauty of arguments; if you argue correctly, you are never wrong. Thus, Hamid would prove to these stupid kids eager for ephemera that his pliers are not only pliers, but also a toy par excellence and that earns him arguments.

Hamid may be a creature of the culture of poverty, but he is not the one suffering from the poverty of culture. He has his grudges against his rude and wealthy friends, but the grudges don’t turn into hatred or revenge. Newton once said, “Man builds too many walls and not enough bridges.” Hamid is a character who builds bridges.

Hamid understands the pain and torment that Ameena, his grandmother, is going through. He may also be suspicious of Ameena’s tale that her dead Abba and Ammi will one day return with ease and blessings and yet he strives to believe in the promised riches who might one day do better than Mohsin and Mahmud. It is the power of hope in the promised cargo. Ultimately it won’t come true, but as long as it survives it will serve to dull the sharp edges of existence.

So who lived up to the true spirit of Eid? This is the question lurking in the background. Maybe others did, but Hamid certainly did. Hamid is ‘Vaishnav Jan’ of Mahatma Gandhi. As Gandhi would say, “I call it religious who understands the sufferings of others”.

What would Hamid have done if he had had six or nine paise instead of three paise? I guess he definitely would have bought tongs and from the remaining amount he would have bought candies – half for himself, half for Ameena. He would have loved to exchange the half-candies that were intended for him with his friends.

Game theorists have also sought to understand the extreme rationality of Hamid’s behavior. By investing in what is durable and useful for the future and sacrificing more immediate but fleeting temptations, he demonstrates a maturity beyond his years that is almost transcendental.

As for Ameena, she feels overwhelmed by the early empathy of Hamid’s act. Towards the end, Premchand writes beautifully that old Ameena played the role of child Ameena and child Hamid played the role of old Hamid and Ameena, looking up to the sky, blessed Hamid with tears flowing down.

Ameena finds herself faced with the vagaries of fate: her son and daughter-in-law are gone, leaving an orphaned Hamid in her care. And yet his capacity to love is limitless. The Irish novelist James Stephens in The Crock of Gold puts it beautifully: “Inis Magrath’s slender woman’s capacity for anger was limitless. She was not one of those limited creatures who are swept away by a whiff of anger and left placid and smiling after her death. She could store her anger in those caverns of eternity which open to every soul, and which are filled with rage and violence until such time as they can be stored away with wisdom and love, for in the genesis of life, love is at the beginning and at the end of things.”